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Key Largo – Scuba, Sunsets, and More

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Photos by Hugh Hudson

Shallow reefs, deep and shallow wrecks, sanctuary protected marine life and year round diving. Okay, no shore diving to speak of, but there are plenty of good reasons that Key Largo is a popular destination for divers from across the country and around the world.  It is ideal for beginners with reefs that are 30-40 feet in depth and advanced and technical divers can explore deeper wrecks like the 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove to the extent that their training allows.

Key Largo – known outside the dive community for the classic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film (not to mention the later song by Bertie Higgins) – is the first populated town as you leave the Florida mainland peninsula and make your way south to Key West and the southernmost point in the United States. Key Largo is also home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park established in the U.S., and the iconic, much-photographed Christ of the Abyss statue sits in only 25 feet of water at a site called Dry Rocks. It is, however, the sheer multitude of dive sites and dive operations that makes Key Largo a favored spot. If you want extra details about the geological underpinning of Key Largo’s diving, check out http://www.fla-keys.com/keylargo/keylargodivewonderland.cfm, but for the sake of this post, let’s focus on the more than 50 regularly visited sites that are available within a 40-minute boat ride.  With the third largest barrier reef in the world, the sites are a mix of natural reefs and numerous genuine wrecks in scattered debris fields as well as ships deployed as artificial reefs. The older, genuine wrecks have little structure remaining as is to be expected in warm salt water, but they provide great habitats for creatures large and small.

Everyone loves the turtles that live on Key Largo reefs

Everyone loves the turtles that live on Key Largo reefs

While you do not, in general, have the profusion of colorful corals and sponges of many places in the Caribbean, abundant and healthy marine life is to be seen within moments of slipping underwater.  “The usual suspects” will be multiple varieties of snapper, parrotfish (including the beautiful midnight variety), barracuda, angelfish, butterfly fish, trumpetfish, grunts, hog fish, file fish, lizardfish, squirrelfish, trunkfish, damselfish, eels, southern stingrays, turtles, nurse sharks, groupers, (including goliaths), sea cucumbers, shrimp, and lobsters. A hundred other species could be named and seeing dolphins on the ride to or from the sites is not unusual, nor is the appearance of manatees in the canals. Snapper Ledge gets its name from the fact that schools of fish are often so dense that they obscure sections of the reef. For those who happen to be in the water at the right time and location, there are occasional visits from a cruising hammerhead, a manta ray, or even a whale shark, and technical divers who go to the really deep wrecks such as the Northern Lights will often encounter bull sharks.

The growth on the USS Spiegel Grove, the 510-foot ship off Key Largo can be seen as this scrawled file fish swims by

The growth on the USS Spiegel Grove, the 510-foot ship off Key Largo can be seen as this scrawled file fish swims by

Although the reliability of Key Largo weather can be impacted by either storms or systems that bring in high winds and the water temperature does drop to around 70 degrees in the winter months, charters go out every day of the year, conditions permitting. Granted, there is an element of amusement when locals hesitate to dive with air and in water with a temperature in the low 70s, while visitors escaping snow and ice are happy with the balmy weather.  However, when it is chilly, appropriate protection with layering is in order for the boat ride. March through mid-May usually brings air temperature in the 80s and the water moving up to 75+ degrees, and by the end of May through late September, hot is the word. Hats, sunscreen, and hydration are all important. October is a toss-up with heat that usually comes down in November.

Visibility and currents on the deep wrecks will often vary more than on the reefs and a normal day for the reefs will be 50-60 feet of visibility and mild current, with frequent days of 70-100 feet. For those who appreciate technology, there is a NOAA tower mounted at Molasses Reef and you can access it for the latest conditions. (http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=mlrf1)

Choosing among approximately two dozen dive centers in Key Largo might be the difficult part, and that very much becomes a personal choice. Some shops specialize in a maximum of six passengers, others have the 14 passenger boats, and several operators have the large boats that carry between 30 and 42 passengers. The larger operators may have two different size boats that can be a factor if traveling with a group of mixed levels.  Many of the dive shops have their own dock and others have a storefront with their boat at a nearby marina. There are resorts that have the complete package of lodging, on-site dive center, and restaurant. Individual dive centers may well have discount arrangements with hotel and restaurants, so check that when you either call a dive shop or look at a web site.

KL Ray

Southern stingrays are seen more commonly on the reefs, than are eagle and lemon rays

There are three particular things to know about dive centers in Key Largo.  The first is a regional Coast Guard requirement for a mate to remain on board with the captain any time there are more than six customers. This means that unlike in most other places, dive centers, in general, do not put a dive master into the water with divers because that would mean having two dive masters per trip which would then increase the per dive cost. Some dive centers have chosen to either absorb that cost or pass it on, but if you want a guide, you will need to ask the direct question. Hiring a guide will be an additional charge and also leads to the next item. The scuba community standard policy is that if a diver has not been in the water for a year, the shop could very well require the diver to have a guide for the first trip and this will be an additional cost. If it has been two or more years since last diving there may be a need for a refresher course. The third item is for those who wish to dive the deep wrecks of the Bibb, Duane, and USS Spiegel Grove. These are advanced dives with the community standard of showing proof of advanced certification, documented wreck and deep experience, or to be in the company of a guide in order to do the dive. Even though you can dive a small part of the Spiegel at approximately 65 feet, most of the ship is at 80 feet or below and current can be challenging. Descending onto the 510-foot long ship is an awesome experience, but it is not for novices.  While the Bibb and Duane are not as large, they are older artificial reefs with significant marine growth.

KL Puffer

Porcupine puffers are camera shy, but seen fairly often on the reefs

For planning purposes, Key Largo is a little over an hour from Miami International Airport during non-peak traffic time and Fort Lauderdale Airport is twenty minutes further north. The Florida Turnpike (toll road) is the most direct route and it ends in Florida City/Homestead as you pick up Highway 1 South, also known as the Overseas Highway. This is a two-lane road with only a couple of passing zones, so relax and watch for egrets, ospreys, herons, and other water fowl along the way.

Once you arrive in Key Largo, local directions tend to be given as Ocean Side or Bay Side and by Mile Marker rather than using street names.  As you drive south, the Atlantic Ocean is to your left (east) and Florida Bay to your right (west). The sunset restaurants are bay-side, but the dive sites are ocean-side and therefore about ten minutes less of a boat ride if the dive center you choose is located ocean-side.

KL Jawfish

Rubble around the reefs are favorite habitats for yellow head jawfish

If there is one thing that rivals the number of dive centers in Key Largo, that would be restaurants and bars. As you can imagine, there is a lot of outdoor dining, and casual is most assuredly the preferred attire. Claims to have the best conch fritters and key lime pie abound and while American cuisine and fresh seafood are what you find the most, you can get Italian, Mexican, Thai, and one or two others. Hog fish and lion fish might be on the menu – both are firm white fish that you won’t find offered in too many places and both are highly recommended.

KL Goliath

Adult Goliath Grouper on Key Largo reef. (All photos from Hugh Hudson)

For your non-diving days, or if you have non-divers with you, other watersports are plentiful and the Wild Bird Center is a fun place to visit. A short trip south will take you to the Theater of the Sea or to the History of Diving Museum with its rich displays of 4,000 years of man’s attempts to temporarily exist beneath the waves. A short trip back north to Florida City and Homestead puts you at the doorstep of the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, the Coral Castle, and the Monkey Jungle. In fact, if hotel rooms are hard to find in Key Largo, Florida City and Homestead provide an easy alternative. If you want to take the Overseas Highway all the way south passing through Islamorada, Marathon, over the much-filmed Seven Mile Bridge and arriving in Key West, plan a full two hours. The scenic two-lane road has few places to pass.

Schools of fish such as these grunts are a common sight on reefs

Schools of fish such as these grunts are a common sight on reefs

Warm breezes, palm fronds rustling, tropical blossoms, parrots that streak overhead top side, with teeming marine life below. This is the Key Largo that you may not have visited for a while, or perhaps have never come to. It is a slice of paradise right here in the United States, and for those 300-plus days a year when Mother Nature isn’t being capricious, a healthy underwater world with the tiniest shrimp up to 600-pound goliath groupers awaits you.

An excellent web site for more information is http://www.fla-keys.com/keylargo

Charlie Hudson is the author of Deadly Doubloons, Islands in the Sand: An Introduction to Artificial Reefs in the US, and other dive-themed novels and non-fiction. She and her husband, Hugh, are both retired Army and live in South Florida where they pursue their “fun” second careers. You can see all of Charlie’s work and access her blog at http://charliehudson.net

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Scotland Underwater

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The first in a series of blogs about Scotland Underwater from Ross Mclaren…

Here in Scotland our driech and dreary weather is world famous. But actually, the copious amount of rain that we often moan about, is responsible for a cacophony of colours across our beautiful country.

The one place that might not always be as renowned for being vibrant and colourful is our seas and lochs.

As always there’s exceptions. Our beaches on the north west coast are covered in golden white sand and with turquoise water that might be mistaken for the Maldives… albeit a wee bit nippier… and we’ve even got a few wee lochs (called Lochans) with some pretty green shades to them, but for a good percentage of our coast and lochs, it’s a steely grey mass that greet us.

So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Scotland’s underwater world mirrors the water it lies beneath. Now, I’m not going to pretend you’re going to be met with a rainbow of colours found somewhere like the Great Barrier Reef, but actually the vibrancy found under the waves definitely took me by surprise.

Disclaimer! I’m no expert in marine biology or underwater photography! I’m pretty much a guy with “all the gear and no idea!” I started out with a wee GoPro and built my camera “rig” up to something that’s now resembling an octopus. But, I’ll be completely honest, I have no real clue what I’m doing in terms of settings, etc. It gets put on “Auto”, I turn the lights on, try not to disturb the marine life and press the button hoping for the best. Quite simply, I’ve fallen in love with our underwater world and do my best to try do it some justice through my photos.

One of the most beautiful marine species I find photographing, and to be honest probably one of the easiest, is the anemones. We have such an abundance of these from deadmens fingers, to firework anemones, and the colours that can be found are just breathtaking. The patterns and shapes they make as they glint in the light of the torches and with the movement of the water is magical.

They might not be the most exciting sea creatures but the humble crab is also a fantastic specimen to capture, and again we have a wide variety. I’m not quite sure what it is but you can almost see/feel the attitude oozing out of them when you catch them in the beam of the lights.

I say this to almost anyone who’ll listen, but I always said I would absolutely love to get sweeping wide angle photo of a wreck. Those are by far my favourite photos to look at. Seeing these hulking feats of human engineering being reclaimed by nature and appreciating the scale of them in one scene is awe-inspiring. Sadly in Scotland with our visibility (well certainly in the areas I frequently dive) it’s not really possible and when it is, it really doesn’t do it justice. However on the flip side Macro photography here is definitely rewarding!

Last summer I had one “photographic goal”… get a nudi! I was desperate to capture a wee sea slug, but no matter how hard I looked I could only find one all year and when I did my GoPro just didn’t do it justice. This year though, well it seems to be a completely different story! Every dive we seem to come across at least one… it also helps when you’ve an eagle eyed dive buddy! With the new camera and macro lens the quality in photos has improved as well. It’s not just the number we’ve seen but the variety we’ve spotted as well! There are so many different kinds, different colours and shapes. It can be a wee bit frustrating trying to hold myself still in the water and getting the camera to focus in on this tiny wee creature, but it’s so worth it!

The dogfish/catshark isn’t particularly uncommon in the UK and it’s no different up here in Scotland, if you know where and when to look. They are absolutely stunning to photograph and, although not overly colourful, the texture of their “skin” and their eyes is absolutely incredible.

Now cucumbers are most definitely not my favourite vegetable… but sea cucumbers… those I do love! I genuinely can’t get over how cool they look. They remind me of wee trees and I’m totally mesmerised watching them bring the food to their mouths with their tentacles.

Jellyfish! The scourge of beach goers everywhere! The dread of someone shouting “JELLYFISH” and hoping beyond hope you aren’t caught in a tentacle brings back childhood memories. So until I started diving the “evil” jellyfish was much feared. However, since I started exploring the underwater world and seeing them in all their glory, I have come to appreciate jellyfish for they unbelievable beauty and grace. I love watching them float past (from a distance!) and seeing the shapes they take in the water. They are so full of grace!

Even the most dived sites can throw up a wee surprise every now and again. We’d headed to one our usual haunts with the main goal of logging a couple of deeper dives just to build up to Scapa later in the year. We descended down to around 38m where we planned to swim along for a wee bit before ascending again. There were a few rocks, but generally not much life but I took the camera anyway, you know, just in case.

Now these guys aren’t completely uncommon here on the west coast, but they’re mainly found at night and until now I’d never spied one, let alone photographed one! Bobtail Squid/Little Cuttlefish! I’m not going to lie, I was so excited! I actually thought I was slightly narked as it appeared out of the sand. This wee fella was so cool! The colours were absolutely breathtaking and getting the opportunity to photograph them was just amazing.

Scotland isn’t the diving capital of the world; we’re not going to suddenly become a top dive destination on many diver’s bucket lists. BUT we do have some incredible marine life, with such unbelievable colours! Although it’s not the easiest diving you’ll ever do, when you do get that moment it makes it feel all the more special.


For more from Ross, follow him on Instagram @underwater.ross and on Twitter @outdoorsross.

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A Red Sea Scuba Scene (Part 2 of 2)

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The first two days of diving were amazing – I think you’ll agree after reading Part 1 of the blog HERE. We left the Brothers Islands setting sail for Daedalus – the southernmost point of our itinerary around 275km southeast of Hurghada. Conditions were perfect for our crossing and continued throughout our day at Daedalus for three dives. I was so excited for this site as it was the highlight on my previous trip and I’d also had word it was the hot spot for oceanic whitetips the last couple of months.

A feeding hawksbill turtle pays no attention to the divers on Daedalus.

We moored up by the lighthouse at the southern point of the island and was thankful to see there weren’t as many boats as at the Brothers. Our first dive was a rib dive to the North Point to drift out in the blue at around 25 metres+ in the hope of seeing scalloped hammerheads. I wasn’t expecting the same action as my previous trip with schools of around 20 hammerheads due to difference in the time of year and sure enough the action didn’t hit as big. We spotted a couple of lone hammerheads between the group deeper than 40 metres. After spending half the dive in the blue we came back to the stunning East wall with its amazing soft coral and small fish life. Towards the end of the dive we had an incredible encounter with a feeding hawksbill turtle that was completely comfortable with our presence as it fed on the soft coral. It’s always a pleasure seeing turtles.

Oceanic whitetip shark swimming under the sun at Daedalus.

Although we were on the rib once the dive was finished, the action wasn’t over. As we neared Scuba Scene we saw some commotion with other ribs in front stopping and looking in the water. Initially the rib skipper said it was a whale shark but as we neared we saw the unmistakeable dorsal fin of an oceanic whitetip shark break the surface. In fact, there were two of them and they were really excited. I lent over the side with my camera and got my best photos of them as one came to investigate bumping into the camera. This is what I love; this is what gets me excited and sure enough for the next two dives I decided to stay under our boat at around 5 metres for most of the dives. There were three in total around Daedalus and I had some incredible close-up encounters with them. This is what I was here for and I was so happy after our day at Daedalus with the oceanics.

Although the conditions at Daedalus were like glass, the weather forecast wasn’t looking great for the next two days and the decision was made to journey back north to Elphinstone instead of staying for another day at Daedalus. I was a little disappointed as it would mean missing out on some more great shark action. However, I missed out on Elphinstone on my last trip due to bad weather and was happy to get the chance to dive there finally.

Lionfish swimming amongst the stunning reef of South Plateau, Elphinstone.

Sure enough the winds picked up during the night and it was a lot more choppy when moored up at Elphinstone. With Scuba Scene’s size, it was very capable of dealing with rougher seas and we planned for a full day there. We had two morning dives before deciding to head inland as conditions worsened. My dive buddy and I stuck with the South Plateau for the two dives and both were stunning. The life on the plateau was amazing as lionfish were in abundance and while photographing them I got surprised by my very first torpedo ray. It was only a juvenile and what a cutie it was as it swam over my dome and turned just before it hit me and swam away. Two friendly hawksbills were again a highlight as they didn’t care for the divers exploring the plateau. While ANOTHER oceanic whitetip really made our trip to Elphinstone in bad weather worthwhile. FIVE different oceanics on the trip; I was happy to just get one but buzzing with the action at three different sites.

Colourful pyjama nudibranch on a night dive at Abu Dabab 3.

It wasn’t all bad leaving Elphinstone early as we managed to get an extra dive in with a night dive at Abu Dabab 3 after an afternoon dive there also. The afternoon dive was a highlight of the trip for me as I got to experience something different with a “cave” dive of sorts. My dive buddy sat the dive out but guide Adma Rashed was eager to get in as he loved exploring the caves. I was soon following him exploring a shallow cave system through the reef. As it happens, this was his first time exploring the whole way through the system and he was so happy after the dive. I’m no cave diver and have no interest in deep cave exploration but this was really fun and different to everything else on the trip. I’d certainly like to do more of this relaxed type of cave diving.

One of the many moray eels at Small Giftun Island.

The rest of the trip for the Thursday and half a day on the Friday was Red Sea reef heaven again. A night dive at Mangrove Bay provided a couple of cuttlefish (I love cuttlefish) and also my first time seeing a Spanish Dancer underwater. Although we tried the seagrass at Marsa Shona and saw a green sea turtle from the surface, we couldn’t find any underwater and soon left to explore the reef – an amazing reef full of blue spotted ribbontail rays to enjoy. We finished with two dives at the Police Station dive site around Small Giftun Island. The gorgonian fan corals were a beautiful sight but the highlight of diving here were the huge moray eels and, in particular, one huge free swimming moray that swam next to me for a brief period right at the end of my last dive.

WHAT A WEEK OF DIVING!!!! Thank you Scuba Scene Liveaboard and Oyster Diving.

Exploring a shallow cave system at Abu Dabab 3 was a real highlight.


Sean Chinn travelled as a guest of Scuba Scene Liveaboard and Oyster Diving. Scuba Scene is available to book exclusively through Oyster Diving. Please contact info@oysterdiving.com or call 0808 253 3370 to find out more or reserve your space!

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A luxurious dive resort in the heart of Lembeh Strait. Enjoy refined services while exploring the rich waters of Indonesia.

The resort is nestled around an ocean front deck and swimming-pool (with pool-bar) which is the perfect place to enjoy a sundowner cocktail at the end of a busy day of critter-diving.

All accommodation is full board and includes three sumptuous meals a day. Breakfast and lunch are buffet meals and in the evening dining is a la carte.

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